A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Should That Be School?
Written by Maureen Downey
At the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend, I had the delightful job of introducing the dynamic Kim Bearden, co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy and the recipient the Oscar of teaching, the Milken award. She is also the author of the new book, “Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.”
Bearden was a marvel to both watch and to hear. I was in awe of her ability to jump on and off the stage in high heels. Her agility speaks to the cardio-vascular benefits of running a school where teachers dance in the halls and fly down a two-story twisting blue slide in the school's atrium.
She gave an inspiring talk about finding solace and inspiration in her students, especially at a point in her life when her marriage was imploding in a free fall worthy of a Lifetime movie.
The audience asked wonderful questions and I asked two questions of my own. The first: Were great teachers like her and Ron Clark – whom she met at the Disney Teacher awards where both were being honored and who was so inspired by Bearden that he moved to Atlanta to create a school with her -- born or made?
Her answer: Both.
Bearden said teaching is an art and a science, and the focus now is on the science of teaching, at times to the detriment of the art of teaching.
While aspiring teachers can be taught the science of teaching, Bearden said a passion for teaching cannot be taught.
Of the many observations Bearden makes in her book, this line stayed with me: All students want to be seen -- even those who seem uncurious, cold and remote.
So, I asked her at the book festival: Can every student be seen when teachers now have 33 kids in their classes?
When teachers are overwhelmed, Bearden said they may have to be more judicious with their attention, giving it to students who need it most. But it's important everyone in the school contributes to the effort of ensuring every student is seen, she said.
Bearden then talked about an interesting exercise she’s done with teachers in which every child’s photo was set out, and teachers were given colored stickers to place on each photo indicating they knew the child very well, pretty well or a little. If the teachers had zero relationship with the students, they didn't put a sticker on the photos.
At the end, the staff was surprised to see some photos without a single sticker. A plan was developed to reach out to those students by sitting next to them at lunch and getting to know them, said Bearden.
I thought about Bearden’s comments later in the weekend when I talked to a group of kids about how their first weeks of school went. These were students from different districts and from private and public schools. Most had been back in school for three weeks to a month.
Several said they had teachers who still didn’t know their names. Two said they’d had classes in the past where the teachers never got their name right. (At Ron Clark, not only do staff members have to learn the names of all 100 students, the students have to learn every staff member's name, including the cafeteria workers.)
I wanted to share this excerpt from Bearden’s book "Crash Course" as it speaks to the power of making a connection with a student who seems to prefer remaining invisible:
Quiet and sullen, Jeremy slouched at his desk with his long bangs covering his eyes. When called upon he would answer in his heavy drawl, “I daunt know, ma’am.” He took no initiative and all his comments had to be solicited from me. When it came to homework, I was dismayed by his lack of effort, and it pained me to see how low his grades were. I knew that Jeremy was smart. I guess some would simply label him as lazy.
At this point, I had been teaching for a few years and I had a good repertoire of strategies for even the most reluctant learners. In fact, Jeremy happened to be in a class full of students who were highly engaged in my lessons. But I just couldn’t figure out how to inspire him. One day when I kept him after class I decided to change my approach.
“Jeremy, what do you love?” I asked. “Ma’am? What d’ ya mean?” he asked.
“What do you love to do? What do you get excited about? I have taught you language arts lessons using football, basketball, food, popular television shows, books, games, music, and more. I have tried to use things that my students love, yet you seem completely unimpressed by them all. I want you to love learning, Jeremy, so I need to know what does get your interest.”
He stared at me for a moment, and I just stared back and waited. “Fishin’,” he said. “I love fishin’.”
“Okay. Then fishing it is.”
That night was a long one for me. Right after school I made a few stops and picked up wooden dowels, string, magnets, and metal washers. After some experimentation I had it all figured out. Late that night I loaded my daughter Madison’s baby pool into the car. I arrived early the next morning to reserve the gymnasium and to set it all up.
When Jeremy’s class arrived, I was ready. “Everyone, leave all your things here. We are going to do our lesson in the gym today.”
The students scurried with me to the gym and gathered around me as I explained the task.
“Guess what? Today we will be speed fishing!” I revealed.
“Speed fishing? What on earth is that?” Ansley asked.
“Well, you will be placed into relay teams. When it is your turn, you will cast your line into the pool. The magnet on the line will function as a fishhook. In this pool there are over one hundred paper fish, each with a metal washer on the back of it. Each fish also has a different word written on it. After you catch a fish, you must then run with it to the other side of the gym, where you will find several plates for your team. You must put your fish on the appropriate plate, based upon which part of speech it is. Then the next member of your team will cast. You will receive a point for each correctly placed fish. You must move quickly and accurately. Are you ready?”
“Yes!” they all exclaimed.
“This is so cool!” added Andrew.
Once I heard their enthusiasm I told them, “You all need to thank Jeremy. He gave me this great idea!”
They all high-fived and clapped for Jeremy, and he smiled broadly with reddened cheeks.
“When you hear the music, you may begin. On your mark, get set . . . go!” I yelled while cuing a twangy country music song on the sound system. Cheering and laughing, the kids raced with intensity as they completed the game. When I dismissed the class that day, Jeremy lingered behind. As he walked past me, he looked up, brushed his long bangs aside, and with smiling eyes stuttered, “Um . . . thanks for today. That was . . . uh, pretty fun.”
After that day, things gradually changed with Jeremy. He seemed to realize that I cared about him and that I truly wanted him to love learning. He laughed more, he smiled more, and he participated more with each passing day. It took a little longer for his schoolwork to improve, but he was receptive to my urging and even started to ask for help.
The game I created lasted only twenty minutes, but it changed Jeremy for the entire year. Speed fishing. Who knew?
For information on how to book Kim Bearden for your next event, visit PremiereSpeakers.com/kim_stewart_bearden.